Here comes the Payne!
Let’s be honest, Rockstar could hype a ball of string and most would stand up and take notice. So when we knew that they were taking on another chapter in a Max Payne series that had been absent for almost a decade, anticipation and curiosity was never going to be in short supply. Along with Max’s unshakable turmoil, a lot of the series’ staples such as the blockbuster-esque bullet time mechanic and the customary downbeat noir-inspired atmosphere make a return, but how far has Max Payne really come since its predecessor? We head off to the darkest depths of Sao Paulo to find out.
Game: Max Payne 3
Developer: Rockstar Vancouver
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Essentially, Max Payne 3 is about a troubled ex-cop who’s been employed as private security for one of Sao Paulo’s rich businessmen, Rodrigo Blanco. Nothing ever goes smoothly for Max though, and it quickly becomes evident when Blanco’s trophy wife is kidnapped on Max’s watch and all hell breaks loose into a mess of betrayal, corruption and violence. Whilst Sun laden Brazil is a stark contrast to the older games’ dreary suburban streets we only get to see a little of this time round, the titular character’s anguish of losing his wife and child remains omnipresent and it’s Payne’s intricacy that makes the game so compelling. For example, his inner monologues are often alcohol-fueled ramblings full of self-loathing and backwards reasoning, but the acting and dialogue is so well realised, they bring depth to the characterisation and pull you into the story wholeheartedly – especially when Max is forced to make some hard choices that consequently result in changes to his perspective, and his appearance.
The narrative can be a little familiar and expected at times, mainly because of its genre and presentation, but Max Payne 3 feels more like it’s paying homage to classic action-thrillers of the past rather than just rehashing old ideas. The supporting cast, at first glance, may also seem a touch generic but are eventually fleshed out well and remain pretty convincing even in the more embellished action scenes. Of course, a side effect is that the story does take up a lot of your precious gameplay time with cutscenes and dialogue, but it’s still Max Payne 3’s strongest aspect and you’ll definitely want to see it through right until the end regardless.
The visuals have the unmistakable Rockstar touch splashed all over them and are reminiscent of recent Grand Theft Autos and Red Dead games, albeit considerably nicer. Colours are quite vibrant for the most part and work well in contrast with the game’s bleak narrative, whilst attention to detail is also particularly pleasing through all the beautifully rendered locations from sunny Brazil all the way to the flashbacks of Max’s dreary suburban New York past. The Split screen approach during cutscenes might feel a bit cheap and cliche to some but are ultimately fitting within the highly stylised Guy Ritchie-esque production that also sees pop-up text highlighting dialogue on screen and intentional glitchy scan lines – no doubt added to emphasize Max’s edgy mental state of alcohol fueled haziness and perpetual mourning for his lost family.
Each location makes a superb job of creating a living, breathing world that breaks and crumbles around you under gun fire and animates superbly; kids playing football in the Sao Paulo slums, or the high-flyer’s yacht party laden with the rich and their bikini wearing entourages will make you feel that although it might not be an open-world, there’s probably something pretty awesome going down over that untraversable wall or around the next corner. Incidentally, after noticing the kids playing football I waited by a fence to see when the animation would start looping, but just when I thought it was about to, their Mother stepped out of a balcony and called them all in – Rockstar one, cynical reviewer zero.
James McCaffrey returns once again to voice Max and naturally glides into the game’s script without breaking a sweat. It’s just as well too, because as previously mentioned, Max’s inner monologue follows you from post to post as he comments on clues, narrates through cutscenes and delivers often-ironic observations of the unruly circumstances he constantly manages to find himself in. The score isn’t quite as noteworthy as you might expect it to be, but nevertheless does its job adequately. Same goes for the general sound design of explosions, guns and whimpering prostitutes that all fit the criteria well without really pushing any notable boundaries. There’s certainly never any reason to question Rockstar’s ability to fashion a seedy underworld soundscape, it’s simply very good.
At its heart, Max Payne 3 is a blisteringly fierce, linear third person shooter that continues some old franchise traditions while attempting to freshen it all up at the same time. The main single player mode initially gives you three aiming options: Hard lock, soft lock and free aim which all snap to enemies with varying levels of difficulty and offer somewhat different experiences in game. Off the bat, the shooting is immensely satisfying and intuitive. Bullets feel like a real entity slamming into bad guys with blood spatter and jolting limbs – even more so when you’re down to the last foe in an area and the camera zooms in to see the bullets connect in slow motion whilst you continue to pump the trigger.
In fact, the game has a very cinematic feel throughout. Both of the time-slowing ‘Bullet Time’ and ‘Shoot Dodge’ mechanics create a Hollywood blockbuster-esque feel, allowing you pick enemies off whilst gawking at bullets and debris already flying around the room. Shoot Dodge ends up being far more theatrical than useful but there’s a real ‘oh, that’s cool’ moment when you realise you can stay on your back and continue shooting with Max authentically twisting and turning his body to where you’re aiming. Both mechanics can get you out of some sticky situations (of which there are plenty), but a recharging white bar near the bottom right dictates whether you can use them, consequently adding some strategic elements to the shootouts as well. It should also be mentioned that it’s best to avoid nearby furniture and water when Shoot Dodging, a lesson I learned the hard way.
Authenticity is something that rings true in more than just Max Payne 3’s great animations. Max can only carry two side arms and one two-handed gun, but Instead of them vanishing into that magical unknown place game characters store their weapons, Max grips the unequipped main weapon tightly in his off-hand and drops it when you choose to dual wield sidearms. There’s a fair amount to choose from too, such as rifles, pistols, submachine guns and shotguns. You won’t find them readily available to you and oddly some vanish from your inventory after cutscenes, begging the question of why Max would not want to keep that kick ass Sniper Rifle.
Then there’s the non-regenerating health bar that can only be healed with the odd medi-pack. This might seem like a step backwards in the current gaming landscape, but rest assured, it intesifies the urgency of firefights by forcing you to make quick decisions, even with the newly installed cover mechanic. Every risk comes with reward in Max Payne 3, whether it be relief of surviving a desperate situation or doing something that looks so ridiculously cool you’ll be wishing there was a replay button – there’s no reward for cowering behind cover too long, except for a bullet in the head and a long walk back.
It’s nice to find some challenge in a modern game, and although it doesn’t quite reach the dizzying difficulties of some classic games, dying is something you should probably get used to anyway, even on the easier modes. Enemies are just downright devious at times, knowing when to charge, when to sit and flanking to good effect. They’ll still pop their heads out when you need them to and attempt to take you on if you hide, but you’ll never feel like you’re being handed the victory by enemies turning their back on you or standing in the open without purpose. They’re not particularly forgiving either, if you take on the dumb roll and start throwing too much caution to the wind, there’s a good chance you won’t last long.
One criticism is perhaps the fatigue of fighting through the main campaign. Although there’s plenty of visual and narrative variety, the shooting itself eventually becomes a means to an end as you seek to progress the story. Rockstar’s simplistic approach is both brilliant and negating at the same time and where it would perhaps excel in an open world Grand Theft Auto Title, feels a little thin in a linear progressing shooter. The set-pieces do make up for it; Bullet Time shooting from helicopters, sliding down rooftops and hanging from factory machinery whilst ploughing bullets into enemies all manage to bring a wry smile of satisfaction to your face. In essence though, the single player is at its finest when the narrative, shooting and visuals come together at the game’s most seamless moments, in turn creating an experience that’s cinematic and for lack of a better description, rather special.
There’s also some decent arcade modes to keep you occupied once you’re done with the main single player. Score Attack has you playing through those chapters in story mode again whilst trying to clock up numbers to take onto the leaderboards. Then once you’ve completed the main game, the New York Minute mode becomes available. This mode places a timer that counts down above your head and every time you kill someone, you get more time. It harks back to old cabinet shooters and turns out to be quite addictive, especially as throwing caution to the wind becomes less inadvisable and more of a necessity.
Whilst the main story mode is highly polished, precise and controlled, the multiplayer is most definitely its quirky alter-ego. By offering a little more freedom, cleverly incorporating some of the single player features and adding some new twists on game types, Max Payne 3’s multiplayer is pure bedlam – in the best way possible that is. There’s all the usual unlockables such as weapons and attachments, but there’s also abilities called ‘bursts’ that uses the bullet time meter to grant you bonuses such as increased fire rate or the ability to cause paranoia towards your opponents that essentially makes their own team members look like enemies. Another nice twist is the ability to announce vendettas to players that kill you more than twice, giving more xp to whichever one of you kill each other first.
There is the odd occasion when everything feels a little too unorganised and free-for-all (even in team based modes). The inclusion of bullet time, that only affects your line of sight in multiplayer, actually works quite well for the most part but is often arbitrary and as a result loses a little of the wow factor that makes it so visually pleasing in the main game. Some weapon loadouts feel a little unbalanced at times too, as dual wielding is often favourable early on regardless of map size or scenery.
It’s the modes themselves though that bring Rockstar’s A-game to the table that include the standard deathmatch and team deathmatch variations. Most notable is Gang Wars and Payne Killer; the first which is objective based and the latter which has a player becoming Payne or his partner Passos by killing them, and then trying to survive the onslaught from other players as long as possible. Overall, the multiplayer is a bit ungainly at times, but it’s certainly got enough in it’s locker to keep you coming back for a long while after the single player mode has been put to bed.
Compared to other shooters, Max Payne 3’s 10-12 hours of the single player story mode holds up pretty well and with the slight repetitive nature of the game’s shooting mechanic in mind, any longer may have hindered the experience more than helped it. Replay value comes in the form of collecting narrative boosting clues and golden gun pieces, as well as a good reason to revisit the game on higher difficulty settings, which offers some serious challenge for those that are looking for it. On top of all that, taking your angst online within the superabundance of unlockables, game modes and maps to explore will all add even more extra hours to the game’s already decent lifespan.
Max Payne 3 is one of the best action games of its kind made to date. It not only brilliantly fuses superb storytelling and heart-pounding action together, but does it all with the style and panache Rockstar titles have become synonymous for. Sure, across all modes there are a few frustrations to be found, and if you fail to be engaged by Max’s narrative altogether, there’s only so much linear shooting one can do before fatigue sets in. Fortunately, every path and set piece you’re seamlessly dragged into is so well crafted, that you’re somehow coerced into believing that the whole thing was your idea in the first place. So whilst there are some games that get thrown into the masterpiece category and don’t deserve it, it’s safe to say Max Payne 3 isn’t one of them.